Big, but not so beautiful

16th January 2004 at 00:00
Leicester plans to split up one of the country's largest schools, as inspectors say it is failing its 1,700 pupils. William Stewart reports

A local education leader is calling for one of the country's largest comprehensives to be split into three separate schools after it was failed by inspectors.

The Office for Standards in Education's report on the New College in Leicester will not be published until the end of the month but inspectors have already let it be known that the 1,700-pupil school will go into special measures.

It follows Leicester's unusual, and possibly unique, decision to unilaterally place the school under its own "special measures" three months ago.

Ofsted and the LEA identified problems with attendance, behaviour and achievement - last year the school had the worst GCSE results in the city for the second year running with only 13.1 per cent of students achieving five or more A* to C grades, down 0.9 percentage points on 2002.

The size of the school was not mentioned, but councillors, parents and former staff all believe it is at the root of New College's problems.

A teacher, who did not wish to give her name but who spent two virtually continuous years as a supply teacher at New College, said: "It has got a lot of behaviour problems because of the area it serves. But they would be far easier to deal with if it was smaller.

"Making it so big was a huge mistake. When I was there, under the previous head, staff would comment that you hardly ever saw or heard from the school management team - it was so large, they might just as well not have existed.

The school was opened in 1999 following the amalgamation of three comprehensives serving two neighbouring council estates, including the eighth most deprived ward in the country.

Michael Johnson, cabinet member for education in the Lib Dem Conservative-controlled council, said that everybody apart from the then Labour administration - teaching unions, Lib Dems and Conservatives - had believed that it was a mistake to establish such a large school.

Now he says he is determined to press ahead with plans to scale it down. He said it should be split into two or possibly even three separate schools divided according to age group or along academic and vocational lines within the next three years.

"We took the view then that a school approaching 2,000 pupils was too big and too impersonal and our views have not changed since," he said.

Jim Collins, New College's head, said: "There are significant challenges to running any large institution but the immediate priority is to tackle the issues raised by Ofsted.

"Clearly if subsequently the school's size is looked at, I will be happy to take part in any consultation but at the moment I don't think it is my primary focus."

Mr Collins did enjoy success with the school when it passed its first Ofsted inspection last year. He took over from New College's first head - Judith Mullen, a former Secondary Heads Association president. Steven Andrews, Leicester's education director, said he wanted the school's management to focus on measures that would lead to an improvement in performance. A target had been set for 25 per cent of pupils to achieve five A* to C grade GCSEs next year and that was the immediate priority.

But he said a future restructuring of the school was a possibility.

"The structure and organisation of the school is too big - everybody knows that," he said. "It is my personal view that by and large small, more intimately structured schools will be better suited to meeting the needs of urban pupils."

A father with a 12-year-old girl and 14-year-old boy at New College, who wished to remain anonymous, said: "The school is failing because it is too big, simple as that. The council should never have put 1,700 kiddies in one school. It is ridiculous.

"You can't blame the staff for what it is going on there. It is having too many kids from two tough estates."

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